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As the oldest of five, Brittane Rowe grew up in a busy household in Michigan. Her background is primarily in theater, so she was always performing and finding ways to be on somebody's stage. After studying theater in college, she moved to New York City, where she’s been based for almost 12 years. In a city where the energy is so palpable, Brittane, her brother and his girlfriend created the card game Hella Awkward during a grim quarantine period. At a time where human connection was at a halt, they imagined a better future in visions of dinner gatherings and bachelorette parties, with their card game providing space for deeper conversations to come alive.
Read below to hear more about Brittane’s creative processes and her hopes for the future in the transcript of our interview.
Tell me about Hella Awkward.
Hella Awkward is my conversation card game ($24.99). I started it with my brother, Brandon, and his current girlfriend, Jane. It was something we came up with organically during the pandemic. We wanted to create something that can help people connect at a time when connection was really needed. The name is really an homage to West Coast culture because we were watching a lot of Insecure at the time. But it’s also meant to be a warning: get ready to get awkward with us. We’re acknowledging that opening up and being vulnerable can be scary, but if we all get awkward together, it makes it a little less uncomfortable. We'll get to know each other better in the end.
What sparked your interest to start this during the pandemic? How do you feel this card game allows for a deeper human connection at a time where there was a collective lack of that?
My brother and Jane had just decided to make their relationship official and then quarantined together. They were in Brooklyn and I was in Harlem at the time, so we were basically hanging out via FaceTime everyday, chatting. Over time, the conversations moved away from the superficial stuff and more towards getting to know Jane better, more about our family background, and more about our childhood histories. We realized that we had a common theme as Black and Brown people – my brother and I are African-American and Jane is a Malaysian immigrant – where culturally, we weren’t offered a lot of space to open up. When we were kids, questions like: How are you feeling? What did you think about what just happened? Are you processing that event? Those things were never asked, so we really wanted to dive into more conversations like that as adults, as well as encourage other Black and Brown people to be vulnerable.
We ended up creating a Google list with hundreds of questions, topics and themes. We started by sending the list out to friends and family, for them to read through them and incorporate them into their daily conversations. We got lots of feedback, went through rounds and rounds of iteration, and eventually came up with a game format. The result was 140 of our favorite questions – a mixture of hilarious, provocative, sexy, emotional, deep and familial content. You have the ability to curate the kind of conversation you need at any given time.
Is the game meant to be played with people that you already know or is it okay to play with strangers? What’s the ideal setting for this game?
The beauty of it is that you can really play with anyone. I've played with people I've never met and I've played with people I've known my whole life. What’s special is that you get different responses based on both the people you're playing with, and where you may find yourself in your personal life. Certain questions might be hella awkward for some, but they may not be hella awkward for you. One response can trigger a memory in someone else and then that leads to a bigger conversation. Your original answer may shift depending on that deeper conversation, so your feelings are constantly in flux. For example, at bachelorette parties, you have many different friend groups – your college girlfriend, your co-workers, your childhood friends, and after playing Hella Awkward, you could all be best friends by the end of your trip. We feel lucky to help facilitate that.
My favorite part about Hella Awkward is that your answers to questions could change every time you play. I remember playing at a pop up event we did. We always like to ask people questions that come by our booth, and one of our questions is: what does love mean to you? So this small group of people was debating this question, and one lady who has a science background, described it through the lens of the chemicals at play in your brain. I remember thinking: I would never define love in that way, but it was nonetheless so interesting to hear how people’s lived experience influence their answers.
That state of vulnerability isn't easy for everyone to tap into. Have you seen anyone shy away from a question or the game overall because of the vulnerability that's required?
Vulnerability is tough. That's why we put it in the name, to help people understand that we're all kind of taking that leap together. In our gameplay, we do have a skip card, so we give people one time to tap out if they need to. And there's no judgment on throwing that card down. But ultimately, we do encourage you to really dive into the conversation because we think that all of these topics are really important. For me personally, coming from a theater background, I remember my freshman year, we were doing monologues in class. I had to stand in front of my peers, who I didn’t know that well, and be in my rawest form. That feeling can be really scary, but I learned how powerful it is to witness others go through that process. If you can just be open to that, it’s going to be respected, and it will be well received by people who care about you or want to learn more about you.
Have you been introduced to other brands in the industry? And if so, what do you think differentiates you from them?
The tabletop games industry at whole, is very white, male-centric. If you look at Target, there are hardly any Black owned games available. So we’re very proud of how our cultural backgrounds and lived experiences have informed the uniqueness of our game. It's always going to be a love letter to the Black and Brown community. We tried our best to keep our voice, our language, our conversationalism, very open and as approachable as possible. We're also very design forward; we want the look and the feel of the game to really stand out in your home, to really be a part of your life and not a part of the game box that goes under your couch. We want it to be centered in a bookshelf or your coffee table so you feel more drawn to taking the game out when you have friends over or at a dinner party.
Who designed and curated the look and feel of the cards?
Jane is our product designer. So this is really a family business. She's worked on crazy projects with Fenty, Rihanna and Demi Lovato, so she’s very talented. But I love that she involves us in each step of the process. We wanted the colors to feel very warm, but also very contrasted and very bold. We used lowercase letters so it feels more approachable. We did the off skew “awkward,” which is a nod to awkwardness. And a matt finish, so it feels really good in your hands. And we have textured linen cards, which feel durable. All these things add to the gameplay experience.
What do you hope that people will take away when they engage with the game? Maybe you're looking to teach some lessons of how vulnerability and fun are not mutually exclusive?
We want everything we do to be centered in joy. When we think about playing a game, we think of fun – you should be smiling, you should be laughing, you should be enjoying the process. In terms of vulnerability, I've always had such positive experiences opening up to people, hearing their stories and providing that safe space for other people to connect with me. I want other people to take that away – a feeling of fun and safety in vulnerability. So we can laugh and be joyful together. And then at the end, we have a deeper relationship.
What are your dreams for the future and the growth of Hella Awkward?
I want all of our games to be staple products in everyone's homes. I want everyone to have it. I want it to be in every store. I want everyone to become a part of the awkward fam. Right now we have our original game and our expansion pack, category Real Talk ($12.99), that has an additional 45 cards. We're also working on a new game that will be released next fall. I hope to continue creating more products that lean into joy and awkwardness, and eventually I’d love to dive deeper into media. We’ve been thinking about starting a show or a podcast where we can have our vision continue to grow.